Programs to stop anti-gay harassment and bullying in schools are making progress statewide, but about a third of the state's districts, including Ashland, Medford and Central Point, are lagging behind.
That's the assessment of the Oregon Safe Schools & Communities Coalition and the Oregon Public Health Division after surveying all 197 school districts and awarding gold, silver or bronze stars, based on how well districts are following four-year-old state laws.
Gold stars went to the Phoenix-Talent, Grants Pass and Prospect school districts. Silver went to Butte Falls and Eagle Point, while bronze went to Ashland, Medford, Central Point and Rogue River. The stars are given based on the existence of governance documents in compliance with state law and using gender identity and gender expression to create "protected classes."
Awards of gold stars went up 12 percent from last year, silver was up 23 percent, while bronze (or "absent") dropped 35 percent, it says.
Julie Evans, director of elementary education for the Medford School District, said the district may have missed the mark on paper, but is very much focused on the issue and on keeping students safe. She says administrators follow up "quickly and sternly" on any complaints of harassment of gay students.
"We work very hard to see that all kids are treated fairly," she said.
"It sounds like our regulations didn't have the language that created a protected class," Evans said. "They're looking for specific language."
Asked whether Medford schools have progressed in recent years on protection of gay students, Evans said, "We're fighting a culture where bullying is the norm, where you see it on TV — that people pick on each other. We are working hard on it, and it's not going to be good enough until there are no complaints."
Superintendent Randy Gravon of Central Point schools said his school board brought policies into compliance, where needed, on all state laws and rules in the past school year — and no one from Oregon Safe Schools & Communities Coalition has contacted him to check on gay-harassment policies.
"Yes, we have bullying and harassment, but we have a very low expulsion and suspension rate," said Gravon. "It's not uncommon in all schools. So much of it occurs in social media, texts and emails now. Those have ballooned as a problem. We address it and create a safe environment."
Kathy Bates, executive director of Lotus Rising Project, said the report opens the door for GLBQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer) groups, schools and social agencies to begin planned strategy talks over the coming school year in preparation for a Safe Schools Conference in fall 2014.
"The feedback we got from youths in five high schools, from Ashland to Grants Pass, when we did our social-justice training is that it's so pervasive that (gays) don't know how to fight it. The gay slurs and harassment happen moment to moment," said Bates.
"That's why we knew we had to do something. They don't even fight back. The cyber-bullying hasn't been addressed; we're just not equipped for that."
The Oregon Safe Schools & Communities Coalition defined gay harassment and bullying as acts that interfere with education, harm students or their property, place them in fear, create a hostile environment, harm psychological well-being and is based on the "protected class status" of the target.
The report says 87 percent of gay students will be verbally harassed in the next year, 40 percent will be physically harassed, 19 percent will be assaulted, 62 percent will feel mostly unsafe going to school and 30 percent will harm themselves in what may be suicide attempts.
Kyndra Laughery, youth empowerment coordinator with Southern Oregon Gender and Sexuality Alliance Support Network, said she is "blown away" about area schools being in the lowest category of compliance.
"It makes me want to do what I do, which is offer interactive formats to (theatrically) perform bullying and invite the audience to take the roles of target and bystander," says Laughery. "It helps teachers and administrators, because it's hard to recognize what bullying is. It's not just a normal part of childhood. We need to be proactive on this."
Targeted gay students probably won't report harassment if they feel it's not going to change, adds Laughery.
"People are more compliant if they don't feel supported. That's why they don't come forward, if the administration doesn't know how to handle it. They're not bad guys, but the students think, 'Who can you trust?'"
Incoming Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Teresa Sayre says her district got a gold star because of a strong, proactive policy for immediate reporting and students knowing "we will be active in pursuing it. (Bullying) creates a hostile educational environment."
Policies have been brought in line with state laws, but, Sayre adds, the school board has gone further, "walking the talk, not just putting policy on the books. This high school goes above and beyond to carry it out and enforce it.
"There's been no harassment reported this year, and I attribute that to the assistant principal and the peer mediation program. All bullying has gone down a lot."
Officials of Ashland School District cited the changeover to a new superintendent July 1 and were unable to comment.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.